The American public has had much to learn about Mike Johnson over the past two weeks. Until his surprise elevation to House Speaker, the Louisiana representative was an obscure, mild-mannered, and bookish four-term back-bencher. He is a former constitutional lawyer and hardly the type of political figure who jeers during a State of the Union address, or gets caught in a Beetlejuice groping scandal, or shows up on cable news to take a victory lap after ousting the leader of his own party. Johnson is focused, methodical, and up until now was happy to operate behind the scenes.
He’s also a dyed in the wool Christian conservative, and there’s a flag hanging outside his office that leads into a universe of right-wing religious extremism as unknown to most Americans as Johnson was before he ascended to the speakership.
Johnson slots firmly within the more hardline evangelical wing of the Republican coalition. He holds stringent positions on abortion, thinks homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that should not be recognized under legal protections against discrimination, defends young earth creationism, blames school shootings on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and questions the framework of the separation of church and state. “The founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around,” he has said.
Johnson was also integral to Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. As The New York Times has reported, he collected signatures for a brief supporting a Texas lawsuit alleging, without evidence, irregularities in election results; served a key role in the GOP’s attempts to prevent the certification of Biden’s election; and touted Trump’s conspiracy theories about election fraud, even saying, “You know the allegations about these voting machines, some of them being rigged with this software by Dominion, there’s a lot of merit to that.”
If this was all we knew about Mike Johnson, we could accurately say that he is a full-bore, right-wing Christian and an election denier who dabbles in conspiracy theories — qualities that might give one pause before putting him second in line to the presidency. But there is another angle to Johnson’s extremism that has received less scrutiny, and it brings us back to that flag outside his office.
The flag — which Rolling Stone has confirmed hangs outside his district office in the Cannon House Office Building — is white with a simple evergreen tree in the center and the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” at the top. Historically, this flag was a Revolutionary War banner, commissioned by George Washington as a naval flag for the colony-turned-state of Massachusetts. The quote “An Appeal to Heaven” was a slogan from that war, taken from a treatise by the philosopher John Locke. But in the past decade it has come to symbolize a die-hard vision of a hegemonically Christian America.
To understand the contemporary meaning of the Appeal to Heaven flag, it’s necessary to enter a world of Christian extremism animated by modern-day apostles, prophets, and apocalyptic visions of Christian triumph that was central to the chaos and violence of January 6. Earlier this year we released an audio-documentary series, rooted in deep historical research and ethnographic interviews, on this sector of Christianity, which is known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). The flag hanging outside Johnson’s office is a key part of its symbology.
The New Apostolic Reformation is a set of networks of Christian leaders that formed in the 1990s around a renegade evangelical seminary professor named C. Peter Wagner. These networks are part of the nondenominational charismatic segment of Christianity (“charismatic” here is a technical term of Christian theology and practice describing a spirituality built around miraculous manifestations and aiming to recreate the supernaturally imbued environment of the early Christian church). Wagner and his cohort believed that they were at the vanguard of a revolution in church leadership that Wagner often described as “the most radical change to the way of doing church since, at least, the Protestant Reformation.”
The hundreds of leaders who joined Wagner’s movement and leadership-networking circles almost all identify as apostles (enterprising church builders) or prophets (who hear directly from God), though some identify as both. In the mid-2000s, these NAR networks collectively embraced a theological paradigm called the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” a prophecy that divides society into seven arenas — religion, family, government, education, arts and entertainment, media, and business. The “Mandate,” as they understand it, is given by God for Christians to “take dominion” and “conquer” the tops of all seven of these sectors and have Christian influence flow down into the rest of society.
Drawn into American politics by this aggressive theological vision, many New Apostolic Reformation leaders became very active in right-wing political circles, including one of C. Peter Wagner’s key disciples, an apostle-prophet named Dutch Sheets. Sheets is not a household name in Christian politics like Jerry Falwell or Ralph Reed or James Dobson, but he has real influence. Sheets has written more than 18 popular evangelical books, and his Intercessory Prayer has sold more than a million copies. He was an endorser and faith adviser to Newt Gingrinch’s short-lived candidacy for president in 2012, and he openly espoused the lie that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim.
In 2013, Sheets was given an Appeal to Heaven flag by a friend who told him that, because it predated the Stars and Stripes, it was the flag that “had flown over our nation at its birthing.” Sheets describes this experience as revelatory, and he seized upon the flag as a symbol of the spiritual-warfare driven Christian nationalist revolution he hoped to see in American politics. In 2015, he published a book titled An Appeal to Heaven and rolled out a systematic campaign to propagate this symbol in right-wing Christian circles. That same year Sarah Palin wrote an opinion piece in Breitbart, endorsing the Appeal to Heaven campaign and thanking her “[s]pecial friends, Pastor Dutch and Ceci Sheets,” who had given her the flag.
Sheets and his fellow New Apostolic Reformation leaders were the tip of the spear of Christian Trumpism, endorsing Donald Trump’s candidacy early on and championing his cause to their fellow Christians. Over the course of the 2016 campaign, the Appeal to Heaven flag and the NAR’s vision of a Christianity-dominated America became entwined with Trump, a potent-though-covert symbol.
Since 2015, you can find these Appeal to Heaven flags popping up over and over: in the background of pictures of far-right politicians and election deniers like Doug Mastriano; as wall decorations in state legislators’ offices; at right-wing rallies. It even flew over the Illinois State Capitol for a time at the instigation of the Illinois Apostolic Alliance, a local NAR activist group.
We make the case in our audio-documentary series that the New Apostolic Reformation networks were at the molten core of Christian mobilization for January 6, with many NAR leaders in attendance that day, including a handful of C. Peter Wagner’s closest mentees. Dutch Sheets was integral to this effort, propelling the Appeal to Heaven narrative alongside the Stop the Steal narrative through his popular daily prophecy podcast in the lead-up to the riot.
This is why, if you look closely at the panopticon of videos and pictures of the Capitol insurrection, Appeal to Heaven flags are everywhere. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them punctuating the crowd, including even on the front lines of clashes between rioters and Capitol police officers — a powerful signal of the spread of Sheets’ ideas and influence.
Hundreds of Christian figures supported Trump’s effort to overthrow the 2020 election, but, having spent years researching and tracking the direct influences on Christians who actually showed up on January 6, we contend that no single Christian leader contributed more to this effort to mobilize Christians against the very structures of American democracy than Sheets. One case in point: Sheets and his team were reportedly at the White House a week before the insurrection, strategizing with administration officials, as we reported on January 6, 2023:
On December 29, 2020 — eight days before the insurrection — Sheets and his team of prophets were in Washington, D.C., staying at the Willard Hotel, the site of the various war rooms overseen by Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon. On that day, Sheets, along with 14 other apostles and prophets, had a multi-hour meeting inside the White House with Trump administration officials. Who exactly among White House Staff attended this meeting is unclear (and the Trump administration has made the White House Visitor Logs secret and invulnerable to FOIA requests until 2026). But members of Sheets’ team posted photos of themselves (with White House visitor passes) both outside and inside the building.
The Appeal to Heaven flag was the banner of this mobilization, which brings us back to Mike Johnson and the flag outside his office. What does it signal that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is purposely flying this symbol of Christian warfare?
When Rolling Stone reached out to Johnson’s office for comment, a spokesperson for his personal office noted that all members have three flag posts outside their office and that Johnson flies the Appeal to Heaven flag alongside the American and Louisiana flags. “Rep. Johnson’s Appeal to Heaven flag was a gift to him and other members of Congress by Pastor Dan Cummins, who has served as a guest chaplain for the House of Representatives over a dozen times, under Speakers from both parties,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that Johnson appreciates the “rich history of the flag,” citing its connection to George Washington and John Locke.
Accepting this backstory as true, it does not in any way refute our basic premise that this flag, since Dutch Sheets’ spiritual-warfare appropriation of it in 2013, connotes an aggressive form of Christian nationalism. In fact, Pastor Dan Cummins, whom Johnson credits as the one who gave him the flag, is a mentee of another major NAR leader (and Trump evangelical adviser) named Jim Garlow. Johnson has described Garlow as having “a profound influence” on his life and spirituality.
Garlow and Cummins have long operated as Christian nationalist activists targeting members of Congress. The Appeal to Heaven Flag was flown over Garlow’s former California church beginning in 2017, and Garlow himself has celebrated how the flag “has recently become an important flag in the present day spiritual warfare prayer movement.” If anything, Johnson’s office’s statement only highlights another vector of NAR and Christian nationalist influence on the new Speaker.
The Appeal to Heaven flag isn’t Johnson’s only connection to Dutch Sheets, either. Johnson has spent his entire career in Congress linking arms with one of Sheets’ top acolytes, a Louisiana apostle named Timothy Carscadden. Carscadden leads a church in Johnson’s district called Christian Center Shreveport. Johnson has spoken at the church, had Carscadden come to Washington, D.C., and expressed his closeness to Carscadden’s views.
For his part, Timothy Carscadden speaks alongside Dutch Sheets, mimics Sheets’ theological ideas, and shares in Sheets’ vision to see Christianity reign supreme in every sphere of American life. Carscadden’s Facebook profile page is a photo of him holding an Appeal to Heaven flag, and the Louisiana apostle posted his support for the gathering crowds of protesters on January 6, 2021, writing: “We will be live in person and online as we stand with the million plus in Washington DC today. We Appeal To The Courts of Heaven today!!!!”
It is simply untenable to think that Johnson is unaware of what the Appeal to Heaven flag signals today. It represents an aggressive, spiritual-warfare style of Christian nationalism, and Johnson is a legal insurrectionist who has deeply tied himself into networks of Christian extremists whose rhetoric, leadership, and warfare theology fueled a literal insurrection.
Johnson is part of a growing cohort of far-right Republican lawmakers who have embraced Dutch Sheets’ Appeal to Heaven campaign, but unlike most of these lawmakers Johnson is not a fringe or sideshow figure. He has leapt from the ranks of congressional back-benchers to second in line to the presidency of the United States. His elevation is the apogee (to date) of the normalization of the January 6 riot, its legal façade, and its spiritual diffusion into Republican and Christian communities.
Bradley Onishi is author of Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — And What Comes Next, and the co-host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast. Matthew D. Taylor is a senior scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Violent Take It By Force: The Christian Movement That Is Threatening Our Democracy (September 2024).
Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/mike-johnson-christian-nationalist-appeal-to-heaven-flag-1234873851/